Helen O’Callaghan hears how some niche early childhood educators are helping children to connect with and respect nature, themselves and each other.
FOR children, it’s an eye-opener when they meet Ciara Hinksman, founder of Earth Force Education (EFE).
Hinksman is a nature connection mentor, visiting about 40 Irish primary schools a year.
With her, children learn about plants: how to pick and eat a nettle without being stung, how ribwort — warrior plant that grows where there has been a lot of footfall – is the best cure for nettle and bee stings.”
Hinksman is a fan of Last Child in the Woods author Richard Louv. He points to evidence that shows an increase in ‘nature deficit disorder’ because childhood is now so removed from nature. Symptoms include lack of empathy, behavioural difficulties, isolation, obesity and arrested intelligence.
According to Hinksman, Louv’s research finds that children’s radius of activity has declined by 90% in the last 100 years — in the 1920s, they knew a six-mile radius around their home, today this zone of familiarity has shrunk to 700 yards.
“I walk my dogs a lot in the woods. Rarely do I see children climbing trees, damming streams, making mud pies or making dens. I rarely see them doing unstructured, unscheduled, free play on their own,” says Hinksman.
The schoolchildren she meets know the exotic animals they see on TV — but they can’t name Irish mammals, such as badger, stoat or otter.
Sally O’Donnell, manager of Glen Outdoor Early Education in Donegal, sees modern children’s disconnect from nature reflected in their lack of interest even in going outside.
“They don’t know how to play in nature. They need to be handed a toy. You recognise the children who are used to the outdoors — they lift pieces of timber to see slugs, they know to expect life.”
Hinksman asks how we can expect children to develop a lifetime passion for nature if we adults don’t show them we value it.
“How are they supposed to learn to love nature if they don’t see it, taste it, feel it, hear it, smell it; if they don’t pick raspberries, stick cleavers on their friends’ jumpers or catch insects?”
EFE hosts British-based Circle of Life trainers in Wicklow to teach adults — who already have considerable experience working with children — how to bring kids out into nature.
Over three courses run in the last few years, more than 53 educators have so far been trained.
“It’s important that teachers are nature-literate. If they value nature, it will filter down to the children,” says Hinksman, who brings children out into their schoolyard so they realise that you don’t need to go to the national park to get close to nature.
“We try to instil sensitivity and stewardship in the children, to see nature as fun and interesting but without causing harm.”
Hinksman says children naturally crave risky play. She teaches them to assess risk while ensuring there are safety guidelines.
“I allow climbing tress as long as we’ve discussed how to check for dead branches before putting your weight on them and how high they can go.”
Norwegian Steffen Erikson is manager of the nature kindergarten run by Park Academy Childcare in Kilruddery Estate, Co Wicklow.
Each day, 24 children aged from two to five years spend up to seven hours in the forest. The outdoors is their classroom — immersed in nature in all weathers, they learn the concepts in the early-years curriculum.
“They learn to observe and assess that the forest is safe. They clear the park of brambles that grow into the path. Last week, we identified [with the children] a lot more sycamore and laurel in the forest than beech and oak.
These need space to grow so we have to take out some laurel and sycamore to allow that happen — so the children learn counting and forestry.”
Erikson says children love the elements — fire, water, soil, mud.
The children learn to use tools safely under supervision – whittling wood with potato-peelers, helping break wood with a mallet. Through a ‘spider web’ – fishing net tied to four trees like old-fashioned trampoline — they learn balance and communication.
“Only four are allowed on at a time. If they don’t listen to each other, they stumble against each other, so they learn to have fun while being aware of others.
They also learn to surmount obstacles. We don’t lift them onto the spider web – they have to work it out for themselves, to problem-solve.”
In Donegal, at O’Donnell’s school of mostly pre-schoolers, with some seven or eight-year-olds coming after school, the children plant seeds, whittle timber to make pegs for holding down tents, knot ropes to put up swings and build with blocks and crates.
O’Donnell says forest education brings wide-ranging benefits, from better development of fine and gross motor skills to increased personal confidence, from resilience to being excellent risk assessors.
For her, bringing your child to the playground/park doesn’t compare to being in nature.
“When you get to the top of the climbing frame in the park, what else is there to do? In nature, there’s always another challenge.”
Foster a child’s love of nature — in your back garden:
* Plant potatoes in a barrel, plant flowers, herbs, a gooseberry bush. Put gooseberries on a plate and children won’t bother to try them, says Sally O’Donnell of Glen Early Education Centre. But they will if they are encouraged to pick them off a bush.
* Put a sandbox out the back. Children can crawl, climb, build castles, mix up concoctions. Give them spoons and empty bean cans.
* Observe bugs. Ciara Hinksman of Earth Force Education says:
— Make a mini-creatures home, using twigs, leaves and stones.
— Proceed to build bigger, knee-high shelters, using similar natural materials.
— Family builds a big shelter together.
* Use your senses to look up high and down low, says Nature Detectives of the UK Woodland Trust:
— Crane your neck and look up into the trees. Crouch on the ground and take a closer look at what’s under your feet. What do you see?
— Follow your nose and sniff things – lichen on branches, wet leaves, flowers and bare earth.
— Chase a sound: close your eyes, stand still and listen carefully. What can you hear?
— Creep and crawl, peer under bushes, peep into tree roots, crawl through long grass, lie on the ground to see the woods from a bug’s perspective.
— Take a breather: stop and sit still for five minutes. What new things do you see, hear, smell and feel.
* On wet days, get kids to make mud pies. Mix different natural items in or on top, so the mud pies have different ‘flavours’ — pine cones, feathers, leaves, twigs.